Big ideas, small towns

Innovative, cost-effective and inclusive start-ups are addressing India's diverse challenges

Some 375 kilometres west of Bangalore, in a small town many Indians have probably never heard of, a few inventive engineers have struggled with their start-up for three years. It is the desultory town of Kasargod, smack on the border of Karnataka and Kerala, where power outages are three-times-a-day affairs and Internet downtimes are frequent.

Foradian, founded by Unni Koroth, Abdulla Hisham and their friends, is a technology company whose open-source school management web product is in use in 40,000 schools, including 15,000 government-run schools in Kerala, and schools in South America and Africa. The very scalable software can manage systems and processes in a school, college or training centre, tracking students, teachers, employees and courses.

The now-profitable company offers free downloads of the basic school management system but charges for customisation and large-scale implementation.

In a country where innovation is just beginning to take root, start-ups like Foradian represent a new wave of small-town innovators. Their origins give them a better perspective on the adversity and diverse challenges presented by India's vast geography. Unlike large companies who sell their products at a premium, plus added costs of customisation and support, small-town innovators' solutions are inclusive and cost effective.

India's information technology revolution of the past few decades, which built for India a global brand, had the underpinnings of innovation and creativity. But though founders of leading Indian IT services companies came from small towns and modest backgrounds, the IT wave was largely an urban phenomenon which sucked up talent from smaller places.

Now, the spread of the Internet and the cell phone are levelling the playing field across the countryside. A wider swathe of next-generation Indians is dreaming big, and trying a hand at turning out creative solutions for segmented markets. "Small town India is more hungry and driven than middle class and upper middle class India in big cities," Bharati Jacob, a founder partner of the venture capital firm Seedfund, explained.

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